Salinger's work a time capsule


From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

A few publications have noted that Jan. 1 was J.D. Salinger’s birthday. While I thought that his most famous work, The Catcher in the Rye, with its cynical and bitter adolescent prep-school protagonist, Holden Caulfield, was and is overrated, there’s no doubt that Mr. Salinger had an engaging voice. (Still, as Holden kept calling people “phonies,’’ he started to sound pretty phony himself.) What I still find most charming about Salinger’s work is his evocation of the mostly young and mostly upper-middle class people of imperial New York of the ‘40s and ‘50s – a time capsule.

Salinger became one of America’s most famous recluses after his move to the small town of Cornish, N.H., in 1953. His neighbors helped protect him by misleading reporters and fans about the location of his house. The students at nearby Dartmouth College did, too. People in the college library told me that he’d go into the college library to check something – seeking a reference to something that happened in the ‘40s? Nobody bothered him.

Jay Parini, a young English professor in the mid ’70s, wrote:

“He came often to read books or magazines in the Baker Library at Dartmouth, and several times I saw him reading by himself at a table, often late at night, in the basement of that library. Once he brushed passed me in the hallway outside my office, a lean and lonely figure. Everyone knew he did not want to be disturbed, and I would never have dared to say a word. I can still see him, a man of late middle age, hunched over a magazine at night, looking strangely out of place.’’

To read an essay by Parini about Salinger, please hit this link.

Baker Library, at Dartmouth College.

Baker Library, at Dartmouth College.

When I was in a small Dartmouth seminar on East Asian history with his then wife, Claire Douglas, no one ever mentioned her husband.

So for a recluse per se, the Upper Connecticut Valley seemed a good place to be. Whether it was good for his writing is another matter. He published nothing after 1965.

Salinger had a terrific sensitivity to how young people felt and spoke decades ago; he connected with, and wrote about best, children and teens. But of course just about all of them are dead, and their language in his writing sounds ever more dated, even to people like me who used to hear it all the time.